Peculiar Facts About the World’s Greatest Composers. Part 2.
Charming as they are, the greatest composers in the world become even more irresistible when we realise that they were also really interesting people! Well, having said that, not all of their peculiarities were necessary likeable but chances are they were very much needed for them to be able to function in their society. In the first part of this article, we talked about Mozart’s possible obsessive-compulsive disorder and scatological jokes, Beethoven’s temper and Bach’s obsession with coffee and his time in prison. Today we are moving onto another composition of peculiar facts.
George Frideric Handel
Born in the same year as Bach, the German composer George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany but moved to London, England in 1712 and spent most of his lifetime in the English capital living on 25 Brook Street.
Fast forward 200 years later and Jimmy Hendrix will move into the same building — the apartment above Handel’s. How often do two legends “live” under the same roof!
Unlike the above-mentioned composers, Handel was quite wealthy and left a huge fortune after his death. From what we know he was very protective of his personal life but it seems the fact that he was worshiped by people did not allow him to fully hide it from the bright spotlight of the nation’s gossip. He was adored not only by the common folks and aristocracy but also by other musicians and by two composers in particular — Bach and Beethoven. In fact, Bach had said that:
“Handel is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.”
Despite being loved by many, Handel never married and there is still a suspicion he could have been homosexual. Whilst there is no hard evidence supporting that, there is a very detailed story about Handel’s duel with Johann Mattheson, his very good friend. For an unknown reason, the two started an argument, which turned into a physical fight and almost ended with Handel’s death when Johann Matheson’s sword stabbed the composer’s chest. Fortunately, the weapon was stopped by a button on Handel’s clothing and did not pierce the skin. The two remained very good friends until the rest of their lives. This is what I call forgiveness!
Unreasonableness seems to be a way of living for the brilliant composer. Not only his temper was too much. He was also well-known for overeating and excessive drinking and “ordering for three” when he was enjoying an outing. At least he had the freedom to do as he wished. As a child, his father had ambitions for him to become a lawyer and had completely banned Handel from playing music. Fortunately for him (and for all of us!), his mother managed to sneak in a clavichord on the attic, where the great musician used to hide and play.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.”
A firm belief of the man who composed “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker”, “The Sleeping Beauty” and many more… Master of the music score, Tchaikovsky was quite a melancholic person himself. Whilst most of his music is magical, festive and joyful his character was not. He suffered from depression almost throughout his whole life.
He embarked on his musical journey when he was only 5 years old. He was, however, a member of a high-status family and at the time musicians in Russia were looked down upon, so similarly to other composers his musical career was not encouraged, which led to three years spent in the Ministry of Justice as a civil servant. Needless to say, he did not enjoy this time at all and craved to leap towards his musical career. And it is a good thing he did!
Tchaikovsky became loved and respected by many. He is said to be the composer, who brought prestige to the composer profession in Russia. He looked for inspiration to the West and spiced it up with Russian character. Essentially he bridged the music between the East and the West and was a true revolutionary in the music world.
A curious piece of information however is that his first ballet “Swan Lake” was a box office failure. Looking from our point of view it is almost impossible to imagine that the most famous ballet in the world was trashed by critiques and people when it first came out. Thankfully “The Nutcracker” and “The Sleeping Beauty” were both instant successes!
Whilst great at composing, Tchaikovsky was not the best at conducting. It is said that he was very messy and nervous every time he was tasked with the job but usually the musicians knew the pieces so well they had no need to be guided, so everything would go perfectly smooth as it was. The brilliant composer also had terrible stage fright and was often seen holding his head with one hand whilst conducting because he had an immense fear of his head detaching from his body. Interestingly enough, he enjoyed imitating the ballerinas during his time at the Moscow Conservatory (probably whilst no one was looking!).
Tchaikovsky married once but after only a few weeks into the marriage, the composer suffered a major nervous breakdown and could no longer endure the marriage. The rumor has it that Tchaikovsky was actually homosexual, which during the time in Russia was severely punished, so he tried to hide it as much as possible. This may also be what led to his death. The official information is that the composer died from cholera but the speculations include suicide and murder. The truth remains a secret but it is a fact that he had a grandiose funeral and was loved by the Russian people, the Tsar and the European society.
What can we take out of this story?
I think the most important take away is that art takes time to be appreciated. Especially when it is ahead of its time. Some of the greatest composers were nowhere near as wealthy or as respected as we assume they were and not all of their works were appreciated in the span of their lifetime. But their art endured the test of time. And whilst their personal peculiarities make them interesting, it is their music that makes them immortal.